Introducing toddlers to sensory bins – Busy Toddler

Introducing toddlers to sensory bins - Busy Toddler


INTRODUCING TODDLERS TO SENSORY BINS: Two children playing in a sensory bin

Inside: Tips and tricks for introducing sensory bins to toddlers… and teaching them how to keep things “clean.”

The first time I tried a sensory bin with my son was a disaster.

I dumped a giant bag of rice into a plastic container, placed it on the floor of my house, and gave my then 22 month old this “Well, play with it” kind of look.

It didn’t work. At all.

He played for about 3 minutes and dumped rice everywhere.

This was not the Pinterest-worthy, Mom of the Year toddler activity I was going for.

I wanted him to play nicely for minutes upon minutes. I wanted the mess to stay contained. I wanted to sit back, sip my coffee, and get a little break.

Picking rice out of my carpet was not what I had in mind.

I learned what I did wrong.

Image reads: The secret to sensory bins that No One tells you: They take practice

I learned that you have to teach kids how to do sensory bins.

You also have to teach yourself.

Sensory bins can be a beautifully easy activity once your child has learned how to interact with them (and, no offense, you’ve learned how to manage them, too). This is the part of sensory bin conversations that always gets left out.

It isn’t something kids are born knowing how to do.

Learning to play with sensory bins is kind of like teaching a toddler to eat. Eating is messy at first, but you teach, you lay out ground rules, you build boundaries and one day, you realize you aren’t scraping spaghetti off the ceiling anymore.

My oldest started with sensory bins at 22 months old and had them mastered by 24 months old. My daughter started her training at 16 months old and was a sensory bin pro at 20 months old. My youngest started before 12 months old and his first word was “Bin! Bin!” He was a pro by 15 months old.

My kids aren’t perfect. They’re busy, impulsive, loud, and typical…but they are pretty awesome at playing with sensory bins and keeping them (relatively) clean.

But it didn’t happen over night or by accident.

Looking for more structure each day?

Check out Playing Preschool: Busy Toddler’s 190-day at-home activities program

Why bother with sensory bins?

Sensory bins are magical. This is one of the greatest “toys” for children and there is a reason why you see them in every daycare, preschool, and church basement.

Sensory bins engage children like no other toy.

Sensory bins hold a child’s attention far longer than other objects.

Sensory bins are the great “equalizer” of childhood play: a 5 year old and a 15 month old can share the same toy together. That doesn’t happen often.

My kids playing with sensory bins meant I had time to sit. I had time to fold laundry. I had time to cook dinner. Without sensory bins, the early years of parenting would have been so different. Instead, I found a lifeline: sensory bins.

I want you to find that lifeline too.


Image reads: SENSORY BIN FILLERS: A guide sheet.
Edible items: rice, cooked spaghetti, cheerios, rice krispies, corn meal, oatmeal, crushed ice, Jello-o, oobleck, tapioca beads, crushed cereals. NOT EDIBLE: dried beans, pom pom balls, water beads, ice cubes, chick peas, mud, bubbles, slime, play dough, shredded paper, shaving cream

My tips for introducing sensory bins to toddlers and preschoolers, and teaching them how to play appropriately with them.

From years of experience, having taught countless kids (not just my own) how to play with sensory bins, here are the tips you need to know.

REMEMBER: We do NOT go from “make a sensory bin” to “walk away and fold laundry” on day 1. Rome and sensory bin etiquette were not built in a day. But once it is built …what a masterpiece!

Make your first sensory bin a simple sensory bin. I’d suggest starting with rice. Here’s a great example. Rice is edible (wink) and vacuums easily. It’s low commitment if things go south.

Simple first bin:

Place 2-3 lbs of dry, uncooked rice into a 28qt under the bed storage container (like this one). You want space for kids to play and high sides.

Add in a few measuring cups and some bowls.

Kids need to see a visual boundary: put a big beach towel, flat sheet, or table cloth under the sensory bin. This will make clean up much easier.

Toddler using rice in a sensory bin.

Can you see the towel under the bin?

Sensory bins have rules. This is actually one of my favorite parts about sensory bins: it gives us a way to help kids learn to play within rules and to live within boundaries.

Here are my rules:

“No dumping, no throwing, no eating*.”

I say it, we say it together, they say it*. Those are the absolute hard and fast rules* for my kids and the other kids we play with. I’ll get to “what happens if they break the rules” very soon.

Notice all the *** in the above paragraph. Those are for my little littles – the under 2 crowd that absolutely loves to taste test.

I still give these boundaries with some flexibility.

It is absolutely developmentally appropriate for these kids to taste their play. That’s how they learn. Where I draw the line is a “sensory bin buffet.”

Couple of tips:

  1. As kids play with the same material over and over, they taste test less and less. “I remember this… it was not delicious.”
  2. Try setting up a sensory bin AFTER a meal. Hungry kids tend to make it a buffet. Full kids aren’t as interested.
  3. If they begin to “sensory bin buffet,” I gently remove the bin. “We don’t eat the bin.” And we try again later.

Do not leave a new-to-sensory child with a bin and expect things to go well. The first few times you do a sensory bin, you are doing it TOGETHER.

Right next to them.

Side by side.

Introducing a toddler to a sensory bin

Check out this photo of my husband and my then 14-month old. He’s parked it right with baby at the bin.

This gives you time to intervene and help kids remember and learn the rules. If you notice they’re about to throw or dump the bin, you can step in quickly before disaster.

You will not always need to do this. But while they learn, you are the training wheels.

Just accept it right now. The first few times and when they are young, they will make a mess. Remember, this is a lot like when you introduced food – it was messy at first. Keyword: was.

My job as the parent is to teach them to limit that mess. Small sloshes of rice is fine; dumping the entire tub of rice on the carpet is not acceptable. I draw the line at intentional pouring (wink).

“I giveth and I taketh away-eth.”

Do not be afraid to take away a sensory bin. In fact, I’d encourage you to take the bin away when things get wild to set some boundaries. “Sensory Bin Time Outs” are a real thing at my house.

Going back to our rules: No dumping, no throwing, no eating. These rules are non-negotiable.

I usually give one warning or reminder. After that, I take the bin away. I’m calm, I’m confident in my voice. “The rule is no throwing. You threw the rice. We will try again later for greater success.”

Because you are sitting right there with them, you can make this happen quickly.

I put the bin in “time out” for a few minutes in our laundry room. Then we try again. I repeat the same phrase over and over “No dumping, no throwing, no eating.” Sometimes, we would try again 5 minutes later, sometimes 5 hours, sometimes 5 days.

But we always tried again.

Toddler playing with a rice sensory bin

12 months old: there’s rice on the carpet, his mouth, and in action to be throw. That’s why I’m close by.

Remember, there is a BIG pay off coming for YOU at the end of teaching your child how to handle sensory bins.

This isn’t just about them (wink).

Sensory bins are a lifeline and having kids who can play at them successfully can be a huge blessing. I want this for you. But you’ll have to invest a little bit of time in teaching sensory bins in order to unlock it.

Please trust me: it’s so worth it.

Looking for some sensory bin suggestions to get started with?

Try one of these:

Don’t let sensory bins scare you! A little teaching and the right supplies can make sensory bins your go-to toddler activity too.

Will you try a sensory bin with your toddler?



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